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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Analysis: Population growth across large swath of Western U.S. returns to pre-pandemic levels

The skyline of downtown Boise is set against a mountain range at dusk. A time-lapse of the streaks of car lights carve a path toward the city, with the highway flanked by trees on both sides.
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Downtown Boise in Ada County, Idaho, which had a growth rate of 4.8% between April 2020 to July 2022, according to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the Economic Research Group.

Boom towns are a well-known concept in the West and elsewhere, but the pandemic brought about the Zoom town, communities where remote workers flocked to take advantage of open space and relatively lower housing costs. But looking at new Census Bureau population data for 2022, a Economic Innovation Group analysis found that growth across much of the region has slowed to pre-pandemic levels.

“That was … one of the surprising things, for me at least,” said Danny Newman, a research and policy analyst who co-authored the new study.

He noted that even with that slowdown, growth in the two Western regions they looked at remained high: 2.6% in what they called the West (which included high-growth counties in Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California) and 3% in the Mountain West (which included parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and South Dakota).

That’s well above historically low national population growth of about 0.6% percent between 2020 and 2022.

One possible factor behind the slowdown, Newman suggested, was a jump in housing prices fueled by initial pandemic demand making it more expensive for later arrivals.

“And that's going to result in a natural slowdown in a region like that to absorb that many people in such a short period of time,” he said.

Rising population is a key part of economic dynamism, according to Newman. But he also noted that the tempered but still rapid rates of growth in the West are happening in a region facing years of drought.

“So it's kind of needing to balance this need for growth with ‘how do we sustain this growth without, you know, overdoing it?’” he added.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Murphy Woodhouse